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WestJet Airlines chief executive officer Ed Sims will retire at the end of the year, the Calgary-based carrier said on Wednesday.

Mr. Sims, a New Zealander who joined WestJet in 2017 and became CEO in 2018, led the airline through international expansion, its takeover by Onex Corp., and the global pandemic that has sent the industry into a crisis from which it has yet to emerge.

WestJet said it is looking for Mr. Sims’s replacement.

“My time with WestJet has been an absolute career highlight and a privilege in my 35 years in the travel and aviation industries,” Mr. Sims said in a statement. “The global pandemic and the ongoing travel restrictions have separated so many of us for so long from loved ones. With two children in New Zealand, I am prioritizing the needs of family who I will not have seen in two years.”

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The move brings to three the number of top executives at big Canadian airlines departing this year. Transat AT Inc. and Air Canada have both named new CEOs.

Mr. Sims was CEO of Airways New Zealand for six years before moving to Calgary to work at WestJet. He also worked for 10 years at Air New Zealand and is a graduate of the University of Oxford.

Mr. Sims led WestJet as it added international routes and bigger jets to compete with larger rival Air Canada, taking aim at the premium-priced long-haul market. However, the effort faltered and profits fell amid higher fuel prices and tough competition.

WestJet was founded in 1996 and, prior to the pandemic, employed about 15,000 people and flew about 180 planes to more than 100 destinations.

The airline slashed passenger capacity by about 90 per cent in the pandemic, cut its work force to 4,800 people and grounded 119 planes.

Toronto-based investment management firm Onex took WestJet private in 2019 for $3.5-billion. As a private company, WestJet no longer reports its financial results.

Mr. Sims, 57, will continue as a senior adviser on aerospace and aviation to Onex.

“Ed was a critical part of Onex’s investment in WestJet,” said Tawfiq Popatia, a WestJet board member and senior managing director at Onex. “With the WestJet transaction closing in December, 2019, and the pandemic hitting Canada in February the following year, we had only a few weeks between closing and the onset of the pandemic and it’s hard to overstate the importance of Ed’s leadership through this exceptionally challenging period.”

The collapse in the global aviation industry has now seen the announced departures of the heads of Canada’s three biggest airlines. Air Canada CEO Calin Rovinescu, 65, retired in February and was replaced by Michael Rousseau. Annick Guérard, 50, became CEO of Transat in May after the retirement of founder and CEO Jean-Marc Eustache, 73.

Canadian Transport Minister Omar Alghabra offered his congratulations to Mr. Sims on Twitter, citing his contributions to Canada’s aviation sector. “I benefited from your insights during this challenging period,” Mr. Alghabra said.

WestJet is still in negotiations with the federal government over a taxpayer-funded aid package. The airline has taken a different path in its talks than other carriers, refusing to take a government loan that would burden its balance sheet and possibly come with government ownership or oversight. However, WestJet might agree to a government-backed line of credit that would allow it to provide refunds to passengers who cancelled their tickets in the pandemic, according to a person familiar with the matter. The Globe and Mail is not naming the person because they are not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

WestJet in the fall became the only airline to agree to provide refunds for flights it cancelled in the pandemic. Until then, Canada’s airlines were offering credits for most cancelled flights, after receiving approval for the move from the Canadian Transportation Agency.

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